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US-Khmer director returns for new film

"The next generation of filmmakers is coming, not just from Hollywood and New York, but from around the world.”

E’S one of San Francisco’s hot young film makers, 38 years of age.  He’s Cambodian-born, which is kind of cool in the US at the moment, and he comes with a cool name: Daron Ker.

He even looks cool, in a retro rocker longhair way, and he hangs out with the likes of the Doobie Brothers, who are so uncool that, hey, they’re cool again.

He has two big films in the bag – Rice Field of Dreams and a biker music movie I Ride – that are already creating a buzz in the US, and he’s about to return to Cambodia to make another film.

He’s shaping up as serious talent, and if things go his way, he hopes his return to Cambodia next month will mark the beginning of a new resurgence in local filmmaking.

But apart from hopefully prompting a Cambodian filmmaking resurgence, Ker’s return to Cambodia in November will be to prepare the ground work for his next movie, Holiday in Cambodia. For this task he has recruited some filmic luminaries including Emmy-nominated cinematographer Hiro Narita, whose credits include movies such as Never Cry Wolf, The Rocketeer, Star Trek V1, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

This week, Daron Ker told 7Days “I will be back in Cambodia at the end of November to begin location scouting and start developing ideas for how I will direct the movie. More importantly, I want to introduce myself to Cambodia. I hope that the people of Cambodia as well as the government will support my vision and allow me to make Holiday in Cambodia.

“I am very excited to start shooting it. With an experienced Hollywood team behind me, I am looking forward to making a great film and highlighting the culture and beauty of my country.  I believe that it is time now for Cambodian films to be showcased and compete at the international level in the near future.

“My plan is to premiere Rice Field of Dreams in Phnom Penh in January 2012.  I believe that the people of Cambodia will enjoy that movie as much as audiences and film critics in America. It should be fun.”

At the same time, he plans to start pre-production for Holiday in Cambodia, adding “I am planning to go into principle photography for  Holiday in March 2012.”

In mid-September was interviewed by Judyth Piazza for the Student Operated Press Podcast in the US, and she said the movie is “About a Cambodian immigrant who gets deported for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and because he isn’t an American citizen. There, he has the opportunity to make a better life for himself and connect to his roots.

“Like (Ker’s) previous films, it will be about a clash of cultures, a delicately nuanced view of a people presented from the unique perspective of an outsider.”

Ker told Piazza, “It’s almost a non-fiction story about myself. Here I am, an American Cambodian – my family is multi-cultural. But until I returned to Cambodia, I still felt lost. I realize now that I’m not lost anymore – and that’s why my work is different.”

During the interview, Ker said he hopes that the production of this movie will help kick-start Cambodia’s film industry, and touched briefly on his ambition to open a film school.

He also told the Los Angeles Times that he hopes to meet Cambodian government and university officials about founding a film school.

The last time Ker was in Cambodia was in 2007 when he was here to film Rice Fields of Dreams, and this is when his ambitions for a film school began.

Rice Fields, which premiered in the US in April to coincide with the Khmer New Year, documents the real-life travels, and travails, of Cambodia’s first baseball team as it journeys from Baribo, Cambodia to Thailand to compete in the 2007 Southeast Asian Games.

The film also reveals the role of Joe Cook, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, later became a chef in an Alabama restaurant, and then returned to Cambodia to form the nation’s first competitive international baseball team.

The film’s synopsis says, “Joe Cook is a complicated fellow. Born Joeurt Puk in Cambodia, he and his family fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to the US in 1975.

“Joe ultimately became a respected chef for the Mikata Japanese Steakhouse in Dothan, Alabama (hence his customer-bestowed name: Joe Cook). He married and had two children. He was American and he was happy. Still, something in his life was missing – something to do with his stolen Cambodian heritage.

“In May 2002, Joe learned that his sister – long thought a victim of the Khmer Rouge – was alive. He immediately travelled to the village of Baribo, 68 miles west of Phnom Penh, to reunite with her. It was during this reunion that Joe conceived the project that has preoccupied him to this day: he decided that Cambodia – this country bombed by the US during the Vietnam War and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge– needed an addition to its cultural options. Cambodia needed that most American of institutions: baseball.”

Joe Cook recruited 22 young players from the villages and trained them for the 24th ‘SEA Games’, a sports competition between South East Asian nations, in Bangkok in 2007.

The Cambodian team was absolutely thrashed, losing all five games  by an average score of 23-3.

But no matter, it was the thought that counted, and the almost obsessive quest by Cook to achieve some sort of dream, not to mention the effect the quest had on the young Cambodian kids, who had not even heard of baseball, or left their villages before encountering Cook.

Making the film had a strong impact on Ker – he figured that if teaching basic skills to village kids could have such a transformative effect, what were the benefits Cambodian youth could reap from being taught how to make movies?

As he told the Los Angeles Times in April, “None of these kids are ever going to make it to major league baseball. But filmmakers would help the country’s economic growth. These kids could use this training and get paid to do it.”

Last month, citing the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and the US success of films and filmmakers from Mexico, Italy, New Zealand, India, China, and Korea, Ker told Judyth Piazza that,  “The next generation of filmmakers is coming, not just from Hollywood and New York, but from around the world. This is a perfect opportunity for me as a filmmaker. I want to introduce Cambodia to the rest of the world, and give back to my culture by helping establish a modern Cambodian cinema.”

The Los Angeles Times, in its story on Ker, queried Phillip Linson, vice dean of the American Film Institute Conservatory, about the viability of the filmmaker’s proposal.

Linson had established a filmmaking program at what is now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts 15 years ago, and told the Times: “Are they going to create a film industry there? I don’t know. But do they have stories there that they want to tell and that they and other people will want to see? I think so.”

The Los Angeles Times added that, “While the vision is Ker’s, much of the funding and institutional know-how will come from his family, including an uncle, Ke Kim Yan, who is now a deputy prime minister in Cambodia.

“Also involved is Ker’s accountant father, a bank manager in Cambodia who was forced to mow lawns to support his family after fleeing to Southern California in 1981. He provided some of the $200,000 Ker needed to finish Rice Field of Dreams.”

Indeed, Ker is part of a Cambodia-cool that is emerging in the US. Or, as the Times puts its, “an artistic voice that is just beginning to be heard. In addition to Ker, Long Beach rapper Prach Ly, the Philadelphia hip-hop group AZI Fellas and the Los Angeles rock band Dengue Fever are giving expression to a generation of Cambodian immigrants exploring an identity forged in two continents.”

During the Pol Pot regime, an infant Ker was interned with his family – he and his father, Kenneth, his mother, two brothers and a sister were originally sent to a reeducation camp.

Four years later, the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, where another daughter, Vuthona,  was born. According to publicity screed legend, in this camp he developed his lust for filmmaking while watching Stanley Kubrick’s movie Spartacus being projected over and over again on a white sheet in the camp for several days.

When Ker was about 9, a Southern California church group, the Church of the Brethren, agreed to sponsor the family to the US.

Eschewing the gangland violence and crime that attracted many young alienated Cambodian men in Southern California, Daron began his working life  as a messenger in and around Hollywood, then moved to San Francisco to attend film school at the Academy of Art. There, he chose Joe Cook and the Cambodian baseball team as his first major project after studying the few films made in Cambodia in recent decades.

This year has been productive for Ker because not only has he released Rice Fields, but on May 12 he attended the premier of his the 83- minute feature documentary film, I Ride, at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles. The premiere featured a pack biker ride to the theatre sponsored by a Harley Davidson dealership.

The movie is billed as the “biker culture’s own feature film,” and is based on one of the US biker’s favourite bands, the Fryed Brothers Band, featuring Harry and Tommy Fryed.

For three years, Ker followed the five-piece band as it journeyed through the US heartlands, performing at biker shows.  The movie has guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers Band, biker legend Sonny Barger, and others.

That film came about mostly by accident. A narrative feature film he was hired to shoot fell through so he decided to check out a biker’s bash at a place called Sturgis in South Dakota, turning up with just his camera to film Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the granddaddy of all motorcycle rallies.

His various accounts of what occurred are hilarious and rival some of the passages in Hunter S Thompson’s seminal biker book, Hells Angels.

Perhaps some of the best descriptions are those that Ker related to the website The Independent Critic.

He said, “I knew nothing about that world. Boy, when I got there I really discovered it. I was like ‘Wow!’ It’s crazy...seems like millions of bikers. There’s just bikes all over. I’ve never seen anything like that before. There were all these big, bearded guys. I’m dressed in like GQ going over there. The lady who brought me there said I should just get dropped off at this place they called ‘the animal house’. There were bikers everywhere, women everywhere. There were chicks running around naked. There was just all kinds of crazy stuff. We got scared. I jumped in the shuttle and told them to drop me off where I got picked up. They were like ‘What’s wrong?’ I was like ‘We can’t be here. Take me someplace else. Take me back to find the lady who brought me here.’ That’s how I was introduced to the biker scene.

“After a day or two of them mad doggin’ me and looking at me like I was something weird or something. I guess it’s a test of strength or manhood or something. I’ll never forget it. I came back with the lady and she’s telling them ‘This is Daron and he’s a cinematographer from San Francisco.’ They were laughing ‘San Francisco?’ I was thinking ‘Oh shit.’ It was pretty funny, because everyone was like 250-300 pounds.

“One of the guys was like ‘By the way, you guys are staying in the dungeon.’ It was down in the basement. Oh my god. Yeah, I was just freaked out. Obviously, it was a test of strength. They partied all night. Who could sleep? Everyone was right there and there were motorcycles 24/7. It was in a big animal house. I pulled the lady over, her name was Gail, and I was like ‘I’m going to die in this place. If I have to pay for a hotel or whatever I’ll do it.’ She went to talk to the main guy and was like ‘Daron’s feeling a little uncomfortable.’ The guy was like ‘What’s he uncomfortable about?’ I stuck it out and after a couple days they started to open up to me. I was so fascinated by it that I pulled out my camera and I just started shooting everything. I just got sucked into this biker culture...

“As a filmmaker, I started to see something special and it sort of became an idea. What really hooked me was when Harry Fryed explained about the song I Ride, a song about how they got introduced to the biker culture through their beloved. When they played that song, I started to think to myself that I might have a story here. They’d told me I could shoot anything I wanted, and I least until I pointed my camera at a Hell’s Angel who looked me and said ‘Don’t you ever put that camera in my face again.’ I sure didn’t do that again.”



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